Which B1G teams can rise like Minnesota in 2020?
It’s never too early to look ahead to 2020. For teams like Northwestern, it can’t come soon enough. For teams like Minnesota, 2019 has been quite nice.
Minnesota was the breakout star of the Big Ten (with Indiana as a close second). The Golden Gophers were just 5-13 in Big Ten play in 2017-18, and then they turned it around with a 7-2 campaign this season during P.J. Fleck’s third year in Minneapolis, losing the West on a head-to-head tiebreaker. Minnesota had all the ingredients for a breakthrough season with a returning starter at quarterback (and 16 returning overall), elite skill position players and an extremely favorable schedule.
Minnesota is good, no doubt, but it has also benefitted big-time from its schedule, playing all of its big games at home and avoiding Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State completely. That schedule, a good coach and players like Rashod Bateman and Antoine Winfield turning into stars has equaled a four-win leap in league play.
So which team can rise like Minnesota in 2020? Here are three possibilities:
1. Illinois Fighting Illini
Illinois will be playing in just its sixth bowl game in the last two decades and will be trying to finish over .500 for the first time since 2011. So yeah, going 4-5 in Big Ten play — including ruining Wisconsin’s College Football Playoff hopes. Illinois got a nice little shoutout from the College Football Playoff committee chair Rob Mullens on Tuesday night.
Illinois you are officially a Quality Loss pic.twitter.com/NjclIwYdR5
— UCF-Bama Liberty Bowl do it cowards (@thejasonkirk) December 4, 2019
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Michigan transfer Brandon Peters threw for 17 touchdowns against seven interceptions, and he’ll have his top six pass-catchers back in 2020. That includes Josh Imatorbhebhe, a USC transfer who broke out with 634 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. Illinois could lose just one senior starter on offense in running back Reggie Corbin.
The biggest question will be whether Illinois can continue this “Lovie Ball.” Illinois has the seventh-best turnover margin in the country as it has 28 takeaways — a hallmark of all of Lovie Smith’s great defenses with the Chicago Bears. The Illini could lose four seniors from the starting defense, including middle linebacker Dele Harding, who has two interception returns for touchdowns.
Right now, the balance of power is tilted heavily in the East, so being in the West is a huge advantage, and Illinois has that going for it. Its crossover games in 2020 are Ohio State, Rutgers and Indiana, so it should have a chance at winning two of those three.
2. Nebraska Cornhuskers
I know, I know. These Nebraska predictions are getting old. This isn’t some proclamation that the Cornhuskers are ready to win the West and return to their former glory, as many (including me) thought they could in 2019. But Nebraska does have the right recipe for a big rise in 2020.
I wrote earlier this week about all of the high-profile coaches that have struggled worse than Scott in their first two years and yet still found a decent level of success, so there’s no reason to think Frost can’t get it going. He should have a loaded offensive unit back, including starting quarterback Adrian Martinez. If JD Spielman returns alongside star freshman Wan’Dale Robinson, that would make 10 starters back on offense. Nebraska was already fifth in the Big Ten in total offense this season and certainly has room to grow as it ranked just 12th in red-zone conversions.
The biggest issue has been a defense that has been anything but reliable and ranks in the bottom third of the league in total defense and scoring defense. Nebraska is losing five starters on that side of the ball. Will Frost makes changes to the defensive staff? Coordinator Erik Chinander, inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud, outside linebackers coach Jovan Dewitt and defensive backs coach Travis Fisher all came with Frost from UCF to Nebraska.
The 2020 schedule is back-loaded. It’s conceivable Nebraska could be 7-0 by the time it plays at Ohio State on Halloween. It also has games at Iowa and Nebraska, plus Penn State and Minnesota at home in the second half.
3. Purdue Boilermakers
Notice anything on this list? Yeah, all the teams are in the West. It’s so hard to make a move in the East because Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State are so much more talented than the rest of the league and will usually occupy the top three spots there. The West is so much more susceptible to a team like Northwestern and Minnesota breaking through.
So, Purdue is definitely a candidate for a big move in 2020. The Boilermakers were decimated by injuries in 2019, which was a big reason they finished just 4-8. But the most noticeable trait of this Purdue team was that it refused to mail it in and pushed superior teams like Iowa, Wisconsin and Indiana in ways that it had no business doing.
We were robbed of watching Rondale Moore for much of this season, but no worries, he’ll be back in 2020 and will likely be a first round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. He has a dangerous running mate in David Bell, who led the Big Ten with 86 catches and finished with 1,035 receiving yards. Those two are going to be a ton of fun to watch in 2020.
And it’ll be more than just those two, as the Boilermakers had 19 straight touchdowns scored by freshmen at one point. Purdue will miss touchdown machine Brycen Hopkins at tight end, but it has plenty of offensive weapons. There should be a quarterback battle between Jack Plummer and Aidan O’Connell.
Purdue needs to get better on defense, though. It ranked next to last in total defense and yards per play while finishing third to last in scoring defense.
The Boilermakers have Rutgers, Michigan and Indiana as crossovers.